Maybe you’ve had the experience; I know I have, and many times.
Chances are pretty good, though, that both the trip there and the trip back consumed about the same amount of time. The return trip just seemed shorter. Apparently we perceive the trip back differently than the trip there. And it doesn’t matter what your mode of transportation is; I’ve experienced the sensation travelling by land and by air.
It’s called the “return trip effect,” and Niels van de Ven, a psychologist at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, conducted a test to try to determine what causes it.
He had a group of bicyclists travel the same route to a fair. He then split the group in half; he had one half of the group return by the same route they had taken to get to the fair and he had the other group return by a different route of the exact same length. All of the riders, regardless of which return route they followed, reported that the trip back seemed shorter than the trip there.
That result seemed to eliminate one popular theory of what causes the return trip effect, which is that familiarity with landmarks along the route makes the return trip seem briefer. The bicyclists who followed the alternative route did not encounter the landmarks that they had seen on the way.
On the basis of his experiment, van de Ven attributes the phenomenon to our expectations. "Often we see that people are too optimistic when they start to travel," he says. They’re looking forward to getting there and they hope the trip won’t take long. But once they arrive they feel that the trip took longer than expected. As a result, they feel more pessimistic about the return trip; they expect it to take a long time.
"So you start the return journey, and you think, 'Wow, this is going to take a long time,'" van de Ven says. But the return trip seems shorter than you expected it to be.
The National Public Radio report where I read about this study concludes with the observation that the return trip effect, no matter what causes it, is in fact an illusion, so maybe if we understand it better it will stop happening. But do we want it to? As van de Ven says, "In the end, this return trip effect gives you a positive feeling once you get home, so I'm not sure whether you want it to go away."
Lately I’ve been experiencing the return trip effect on a grand scale.
Forty years ago I was preparing to leave my home in Barnesville to embark on my life journey. Being seventeen years old, it was impossible for me to anticipate how long such a trip would take, especially since I didn’t even know what my destination was. I do know that I was in a hurry to get to wherever I was going. I also know that at times it seemed that I was riding in a horse-drawn carriage while at other times it felt like I was in a rocket.
Now that I’ve arrived back home (technically at my father’s home of Yatesville, but that’s close enough) and I’m looking back, it seems like the entire journey was taken in Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon with its hyperdrive perpetually engaged. And I must say I’m feeling pretty positive about the experience.
There’s a sense in which all of life is a return trip. So far as I can tell, two things are simultaneously true: (1) God sent us here and (2) Before we got here we were nowhere. Oh, the genes and the stardust and all the other stuff that went into making us who we are was already here, but the consciousness—the spirit, if you will—that makes me me and that makes you you was not. Still, in a very deep place within that consciousness, we know that home is somewhere else and we long to get back there. And by God’s grace, we will.
The farther along I get, the shorter my life seems to have been.
Now I know why—it’s all about the return trip effect. I’m on my way home . . .
(This article first appeared in "Ruffin's Renderings" in the Barnesville (GA) Herald Gazette on July 7, 2015)